Monday, May 11, 2009

Assimilation and Accommodation in Spiritual Growth

The great cognitive developmentalist, Jean Piaget, postulated two distinct ways that learning occurs in children (and adults, for that matter), Assimilation and Accommodation. These two approaches also relate to how we encounter information in our spiritual growth - so let's take a moment to look at how each works.
Assimilation and Accommodation are the two complementary processes of Adaptation described by Piaget, through which awareness of the outside world is internalised. Although one may predominate at any one moment, they are inseparable and exist in a dialectical relationship. The terms are also used to describe forms of knowledge in Kolb’s elaboration of the cycle of experiential learning.

In Assimilation, what is perceived in the outside world is incorporated into the internal world (note that I am not using Piagetian terminology), without changing the structure of that internal world, but potentially at the cost of "squeezing" the external perceptions to fit — hence pigeon-holing and stereotyping.

If you are familiar with databases, you can think of it this way: your mind has its database already built, with its fields and categories already defined. If it comes across new information which fits into those fields, it can assimilate it without any trouble.

Assim.gif (10686 bytes)

In Accommodation, the internal world has to accommodate itself to the evidence with which it is confronted and thus adapt to it, which can be a more difficult and painful process. In the database analogy, it is like what happens when you try to put in information which does not fit the pre-existent fields and categories. You have to develop new ones to accommodate the new information.

Accom.gif (14085 bytes)

In reality, both are going on at the same time, so that—just as the mower blade cuts the grass, the grass gradually blunts the blade—although most of the time we are assimilating familiar material in the world around us, nevertheless, our minds are also having to adjust to accommodate it.

From my experience, too many people are looking for information and experience that they can assimilate into their existing worldviews, but they avoid or reject information and experience that does not fit their existing schemes.

This is equivalent to what Ken Wilber has termed translation ("A horizontal change in surface structures or patterns; the shuffling and stabilizing of those surface structures"). In this case, the only real change is a different way of understanding things in the same way, a new metaphor.

This style of learning does not change who we are as people or evolve our self-sense in any real way.

For that to happen, we need accommodation, the change of our interior schemes to match new information or experience. This is what Wilber calls transformation ("A vertical change in deep structures. The emergence of deeper forms of agency and wider communions").

Too much of the New Age, and even some of the mainstream Buddhist teachings in the West, is aimed at assimilation and translation, but not at accommodation and transformation. In order to grow as people, we need to change our inner structures - and in order for those changes to stick, we need to be engaged in some form of practice that embodies the new experience in our flesh.

There are two more qualities we need to add to this mix, however, and these are life conditions and shadow work.

If our lives - the environment, our peer groups, or culture, our interior strengths - cannot support the change, it won't stick. We need both internal and external support for change to happen. For example, it's very difficult to think in post-formal, abstract ways when one is embedded in a culture that is essentially stuck in concrete operations. The life conditions are not there to support such higher-level thinking. It's possible to do so anyway, but it's tough. Or, another example, it's difficult to think that all beings are equal under the law when the dominant societal view is that some people are mere animals and only equivalent to 3/4 of a person (or less). Make sense?

The other thing we need to do is look at the blocks within us that keep us from growing. This is what we generally mean by shadow work. Not all of those blocks are necessarily negative, but they tend to be forms of wounding that hold us back. We can do this through therapy, parts work, internal dialogue, free writing, art, and many other ways. The important thing is to be brutally honest (and ruthlessly compassionate) with ourselves as we look at the ways we self-sabotage.

If we can shift from assimilation to accommodation as a primary form of learning, embody that learning through practice, create the right life conditions, and do our shadow work, we are doing everything we need to transform ourselves into more evolved human beings.

No comments: